It's been 14 years since iconoclastic musician/composer Frank Zappa passed away from prostate cancer, and 18 years since he played his last concert. A loss that most of the rock world has yet to fully comprehend, Zappa was one of a kind -- a songwriter, composer, guitarist extraordinaire, and political activist who shirked the guidelines and expectations of the music industry and did things his way, regardless of the financial and professional consequences. With the blessings of the family, Frank's oldest son Dweezil created a show geared to bring Frank's music to a whole new generation of listeners.
"We had been kicking the 'Zappa Plays Zappa' concept around for a long time," Dweezil says, "and it just took a while for me to be able to do it right. I was not yet comfortable with the technical guitar style that Frank played, and it took me about two years of intensive practice to get to where I'm able to do it." An emotional barrier that also had to be addressed: The Zappa family was known to be very close-knit, and Frank's death was quite devastating to them all. "Of course, playing his music each night is very emotional, and feeds into that."
After developing his own skills, Dweezil sought out the best possible players for this musical celebration, and naturally turned to the alumni of Frank's best bands. "We have drummer Terry Bozzio, guitarist Steve Vai and vocalist/sax player Napoleon Murphy Brock playing with us, and in some cities other former members join in at times." With that core, the ZPZ band had a head start with the complex material, and is rounded out nicely by a variety of top-notch players who are sympathetic and capable of mastering the intricate Zappa style.
"This is a show that Frank would probably never have done," Dweezil says. "But he liked to surprise people in concert, and there are plenty of surprises in our three-hour set." Given the vast diversity in Frank's catalog, Dweezil had a lot to choose from. "I selected a lot of songs from my favorite era, which was the mid to late '70s. That was a strong point in Frank's career, and a fan-favorite time as well. We skip a lot of the 'hits,' and focus on the music that is most representative."
Tantamount to Dweezil's decision to form the ZPZ band was the acknowledgement that the music had to be played correctly. Frank was a stickler for perfection in musical performance, and Dweezil holds the same standards. That is also the basis of his well-documented complaints about the various tribute bands doing Frank's music. "They are not good enough," he says. "Most of the tribute bands don't play the music properly, they can't do the really difficult parts so they change it around or simply guess at what the notes are. While I appreciate any interest in Frank's music, if they cover it they should be accurate." Like father, like son.
But there may be a bit more to the emergence of the ZPZ band. The Zappa family has long been very protective of Frank's music and image, even registering his likeness and trademarking it. Most of the cover bands do not pay direct royalties for the performance of Frank's music, which is a point of contention in the Zappa clan. Dweezil explains, "Cover bands can be considered an alternative marketing device, if it leads to increased sales of Frank's albums. But there are people who stage Zappa festivals, sell their own T-shirts and CDs, without paying any licensing or royalties. We are not trying to be dictators, but want what is rightfully due us. It's the law!"
Regardless of the business issues, Zappa's music is coming alive once again. Dweezil says, "My dream is to have more people recognize Frank Zappa's music. It was important work and they should get a chance to hear it."
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Frank Zappa's cause of death. Zappa died due to complications with prostate cancer.
ooooohhhh, I'm so excited!! I can't wait to see them together!
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